Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Some Times in England...

From the Tate Modern viewing level
After visiting Iceland last year, I decided I could travel internationally by myself. I wanted to visit an English-speaking country for my first solo-international trip. But, then, this summer an opportunity arose. I met someone about to take a vacation, during my summer break. And so, I joined this person, born in England, but who has lived in Philly for ten years, on a trip to their home country. We spent ten days driving around the (almost) entire country.

Instead of detailing the whole trip, I’ll hit the highlights. I didn’t necessarily have expectations for England. I am not an Anglophile. I re-watched The Trip and did a bit of research to prepare. Unlike everyone else I mentioned the trip to, I knew that the food would be good. In fact, I had three of the more incredible meals of my life, as well as the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten.

The Fryer's Delight
The trip began with a jet-lagged dinner of fish and chips, in London, at The Fryer’s Delight. I did eat fish and chips three times while in England. The Fryer’s Delight was, as explained to me, less fancy, but more, not sure of the word, maybe traditional or “old-fashioned.” The Fryer’s Delight was certainly different than the others; it wasn’t the fluffy batter you might expect. It was tighter, and the taste of fryer oil was nice.

The next day we made it to the Tate Modern before dinner. I was not missing the Tate. I remember Marc Maron talking about the Rothko room. I, somewhat frantically, moved through the stunning and crowded Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit to find the Rothko room. There was limited time at the museum and I wanted to digest the Rothkos. I found the room and spent about twenty minutes enjoying the dark maroon and black paintings. The room is dimly lit and the paintings are deep. Sitting in the room felt both ominous and cathartic.

Middle White, St. John
We had dinner at St. John: the first of three particularly excellent meals on the trip. The experience was spectacular. I knew it would be. I was most excited to eat foods that we never see in America. Middle White? Yes. Every piece of pork I ate in England was better than every piece of pork I have ever eaten in America. This seems to be evidence of the fact that the American meat industry has screwed everything up. Beyond the food, the inside of the restaurant and the service was lovely.

After visiting Borough Market, to sample various seafood, meats, and cheeses, we drove south from London. An accidental booking brought us to the Isle of Wight. Yet another place I desired to go because of a song lyric. The only reason I know of its location, spelling, and existence is because of The Beatles’s song: “When I’m Sixty-Four.” A short, expensive ferry over, and a nice sunset drive, led to the best Indian food I’ve ever had. We didn’t necessarily need to eat a very late night dinner, but the gentleman at the front desk, at the hotel, told us we had a chance to get to an Indian spot before it closed, Fatimas. I am so glad that we did. We ate out of the containers on a stone wall next to the restaurant. A far more expensive Indian dinner in London, later in the trip, couldn’t compare.
Atlantic prawn cocktail & sardines on toast, Hix

Next we traveled southwest towards Cornwall. The drive through Devon and Dorset was the most beautiful scenery of the trip. Incredibly hilly farms, separated by neat tree lines, seemed to float in the clouds. We stopped in Lyme Regis for another excellent meal: HIX Oyster & Fish House. The tiny restaurant sits atop the hill overlooking the town and sea.

In Cornwall, we stayed in a yurt on a farm. The yurt had no electricity, but there was a separate space attached with a kitchen, running water, and bathroom/shower. We drove further south to Mousehole, purchased seafood in Newlyn, and ate dinner at the yurt. Despite the driving rain during our entire stay in Cornwall, the yurt was a highlight of the trip.

Next we drove north to Manchester. We stopped at a smokery for lunch and continued to Manchester to see a match at Old Trafford. I wanted to experience the vibe of a soccer match. I’ll call it a “match,” but I don’t think I’m conceding on the “soccer” versus “football” point. I might if I wasn’t so connected to American football. The match, a "friendly," was somewhat sleepy. It was interesting to see that drinking is not allowed in the stands. Signs warn that if you take a beer into the stands you will be arrested. I can’t help but think that American football could benefit from this bit of civilization.

The next day, in Manchester, after I practiced yoga, we had the third of the three brilliant meals: a perfect lunch at Hawksmoor. The cocktails, the glassware, the food, the old train station décor. Everything was flawless.

After a quick family visit we traveled south. We stopped for pies at Standforths Butchers in Skipton. Then we made two art stops: The Hepworth Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Hepworth is very small, but had a few items of note. There was an interesting personal collection with drawings by Miro, Sylvia Plath, and Calder. There were also three I-Pad drawings by David Hockney. These there were stunningly bright and eye-catching.

I wanted to go to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for a James Turrell. I will go out of my way to see any Turrell. This one is a Skyspace inside of an 18th c. deer shelter. It was very hard to find in the park. I have to imagine that many people miss it, unless they are looking for it. The middle of the day isn’t the best time to see a Skyspace, but it still had a meditative quality. We laid on the benches for nearly an hour, watching the clouds move past the opening in the ceiling.

Sunday roast, The Jugged Hare
We continued southeast to Cromer and stayed outside Norwich for the night. Then we drove back to London for two more nights. We ate upscale Indian food at Gymkhana, saw a comedy show at the Comedy Store, went to the Royal Academy of Arts for an awesome David Hockney show, and ate Sunday roast at The Jugged Hare. That evening, we grabbed way too much kebab on the way to our hotel near the airport.

Two months later, I’m still forming my thoughts about England. I realized that “New England” is a very appropriate name for New England; much of the landscape, save the farms in the southwest, is the same. I see why Boston felt like home to many colonists. I understand why the colonists cared so much about tea; having a nice afternoon tea is rather enjoyable. I learned that pub culture is a real "thing." As a place of exchange and discourse, the British pub is very different from most American bars. The local pub is a centuries-old meeting place with historical importance in England. No matter how many baskets of flowers you hang outside of a building, or how much you try to recreate British pub fare, the pub is a cultural phenomenon that can't quite be transplanted to America.

Overall, England seems to be a more civilized and apologetic version of America. Besides the architecture, London was very much like an American city. As an international city, London has the trappings of the forces of globalization. It seems wrong to see a Subway and Pizza Hut everywhere. Many spots felt like a smaller version of something in New York. I wonder what it would be like to have known London before New York.

But, the food was worth the trip. The produce, meat, and seafood was all that much better than what we find in America. I ate fish and shellfish I could never eat/eat so fresh in America: whelks, cockles, spider crab, brown crab, oysters. I’ve already waxed philosophical about pork.

When I returned from the trip, I didn't think I ever needed to go back to England. But, now, I've softened. I would return. Albeit, I'd make a few different choices. Regardless, every trip is an experiential lesson worth the price of admission. Sometimes, you have to go. And, whatever you find is what you need. 

Langoustine and mayo, St. John
Barbican Estate
Rothko, Tate Modern
Pie & mash, G. Kelly
Jellied eels, G. Kelly
Basement of the Tate Modern
Borough Market
Borough Market
Cockles and whelks, Borough Market
Isle of Wight
Durdle Door
Somewhere on the side of the road in Dorset

Lyme Regis
Rock Oysters, Hix
Moyallon bacon chop with Poole cockles and sea sandwort, Hix
Torbay turbot steak with Aviemore girolles and sea astor, Hix
Eton mess, Hix

St. Ives
Peacock in Cornwall
Clotted cream in Mousehole
Seafood in Newlyn, ate the spider crab

Brixham crab salad with brown shrimp, Hawksmoor
Potted beef & bacon with Yorkshires, Hawksmoor
Side of bone marrow, Hawksmoor
Royal bream, Hawksmoor
Sticky Toffee, Hawksmoor
Marshmallows that caramelize
Sausage Roll
Made with chicken, not available in US
Not Vital, "Let 100 Flowers Bloom," Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Turrell Skyspace, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Turrell Skyspace in a Deer Stand
Hockney I-Pad Drawings, Hepworth Wakefield

House prosciutto, The Jugged Hare
Hockney, Royal Academy of Arts

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Overdoing New Orleans

Over Labor Day weekend, I went to New Orleans with two friends. The list of cities I feel the need to visit, in the US, is dwindling. I’m down to Minneapolis, maybe Dallas/Houston, Miami, and apparently, Memphis. Then, I’m on to National Parks and other countries. I wanted to visit New Orleans for years. I didn’t want to visit alone. After a failed attempt to go to New Orleans last New Years, three busy people managed to plan a trip together. I was happy to travel with like-minded friends. We worked on a Google Doc of restaurants/bars for weeks. A few days before, we figured we should add in a few cultural events. Terms like “strategic reservations” were thrown about. An itinerary was typed up.

We found an AirBnb in the Bywater. The shotgun house was a fifteen-minute drive to downtown and walking distance to at least one bar. Upon arrival we went directly to St. Roch Market. I had been following this food hall on Instagram for months. There are about ten food vendors inside the gorgeous space. We had oysters and po’ boy sandwiches and cocktails. What is glorious about the market is that you can buy food from anywhere and sit anywhere, including the bar. Thus, you can drink a bit, go order whatever kind of food you feel like (tacos, pho, sandwiches, oysters), drink while you wait, and your food will come to you. It’s an ingenious plan I haven’t seen elsewhere. The system does seem to create more of a community feel in the space.
St. Roch Market

After checking into the AirBnb we walked over Bacchanal Wine. Again, this wine store/wine bar/cocktail bar/backyard music space was something I’ve never seen. The organization of the restaurant is so specific, yet relaxed at the same time. You buy a bottle of wine inside, take it with you, and sit wherever you like. There’s a cocktail bar upstairs. You can buy cheese and salami out of a cooler; they will plate it for you and bring it to your table. They also have a kitchen window where you can order hot food. There’s a backyard patio with various tables and live music. The whole concept seems too involved for Philadelphians. But, everything about it was easy. Nothing was stressful. Maybe it was something about the atmosphere of New Orleans. If I lived nearby, I would be a regular patron.
Catfish Po' Boy at St. Roch Market

In our planning emails, we decided upon a few reservations. One was at John Besh’s Restaurant August. Unfortunately, we were rather underwhelmed by this very fancy, white-table cloth spot. We felt like we were rushed and a bit condescended to. Yes, we look young, but we are are serious about eating. The dishes were very acceptable, but not spectuar. Most were too salty. Somewhat disappointed, we walked to Sazerac Bar for after-dinner cocktails. This was the most time we spent downtown and the latest we were out and about. This fact might suggest that our priorities ran counter to the typical New Orleans visitor.

The next morning, I made it up and out for 8:00AM yoga. After, I grabbed coffee for all of us at Mammoth Espresso in the warehouse district. The owner and I had a nice chat; I learned the New Orleans saying that “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I learned that no one in New Orleans is roasting coffee and that third-wave coffee is still developing in the city. [Yes, I just used the term “third-wave” to describe a coffee renaissance and not feminism.]

One of the other “strategic reservations” we made was Commander’s Palace for their Saturday jazz brunch. We were all looking for at least one traditional New Orleans experience. We were not disappointed. We ended up overly full and very impressed. The service, the food, the deep-dark French sauces, the bread, the garlic bread, the desserts, the everything. After lunch we walked around St. Lafayette cemetery across the street. Somehow, we continued on to the New Orleans Art Museum and sculpture garden. It’s a very nice, compact art museum. A life-sized, gilded log cabin proved surprising and useful (I showed my US history class photos).

Habanero Oysters - N7
We rallied for dinner at N7. This restaurant was recently named number 10 on Bon Appétit’s “America’s Best New Restaurants 2016” list. Tucked behind a wooden fence in the Bywater neighborhood, N7 seems to be more about kitsch and décor than food. My friends and I mused that Bon Appétit is interested in finding “things” that no one else is doing, as opposed to overall quality. N7 serves many items from cans on their “Can to Table” menu: habanero oysters, lobster rillettes, calamari in spicy ragout. These items are imported from abroad. This is all fine. Given the trend towards natural wines, I’m also not surprised to see this place on Bon Appétit’s list; their wine list is stellar. Dinner was totally serviceable. We were full from lunch, anyway. After dinner we went back to St. Roch Market for cocktails. I ended up buying a chicken sandwich from Good Bird that I didn’t need to eat. We grabbed cupcakes and few Radlers for dessert and turned in.

Smoked Salmon - Willa Jean
The next day, we were up for a quick breakfast before a cemetery tour. I wanted to visit Willa Jean for their pastries and cookies. I had an excellent smoked salmon sandwich on an everything croissant. Very good. My friend made the intelligent choice to order the cornbread. It was the best cornbread I’ve ever had. We also ordered pastries and chocolate chip cookies to go. After a (hot and humid) tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, we drove out to the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans. The park never reopened after Katrina. I had seen photos of the inside on Instagram. I wanted to venture into the park, but it seemed that the only entrance had a security patrol. Simply driving by it was eerie enough. So, went home to nap. The thought of anything else to eat, or anything at all, was too much.

Cubano - Cochon Butcher
In the afternoon we ventured out for a late lunch. Again, I had been eyeing a butcher shop on Instagram for a while: Cochon Butcher. I had the best Cuban sandwich ever and lambrusco, while friends had a muffaletta and roast beef. After sandwiches we sought out music on Frenchman Street. The “music” part of New Orleans is real. This was most memorable. To walk down the street, listen to whatever is coming out of each bar, decide if you like it, and go in for a drink, is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I’m guessing that’s because it doesn’t exist elsewhere. 

After music, we soldiered on for beignets. We weren’t going to miss them. I thought they were alright. I was, after all, the person who pushed for each of us to order our own bag. In ninety-degree weather, we sat on a bench by the Mississippi and ate fried doughnuts. I drank chicory coffee. We contemplated how much food we had consumed in a mere 48 hours. We contemplated never eating again. In fact, we were done for the day.

Hivolt Coffee
On Labor Day, I drove my friends to the airport for their flight. My flight was a few hours later, so I went to yoga (to feel better about my excessive eating). Then I found a coffee shop, Hivolt Coffee, in the lower garden district. I ordered something without meat: avocado toast. It was light and excellent. I read for a few hours, went to see some public art (a Noguchi sculpture and a Banksy), made a quick, final stop at Willa Jean to grab another chocolate chip cookie and a sandwich for the flight. After looking at the food options in the airport, I was very happy with my salami and cheese on baguette.

In the end, New Orleans was the unique, eerie, and delicious experience I thought it would be. New Orleans is an American city. I’m happy I went with friends. Despite that I travel alone quite a bit, I wouldn’t have felt entirely okay in New Orleans by myself. While I’m often happier to be alone, I enjoyed eating and hanging out with friends who also love food and drink as much as I do.

The Larry Bird - St. Roch Market
Cornbread - Willa Jean
Willa Jean

Salami and Cheese - Willa Jean